Friday, December 13, 2013

Allen Lowe's frustrated maximalism

Allen Lowe is one of the most illuminating thinkers-about-music currently working, and he always goes big: imagine if Alan Lomax and Harry Smith had also been musos. While he's not doing actual fieldwork the way those two worthies did, he's curated a series of multi-volume, multi-CD excavations into the recesses of American music, and written books to accompany them (or vice versa). A familiar of Anthony Braxton and Julius Hemphill, he also makes some of the most compelling jazz records to be released in the current decade. His most recent output includes two books -- God Didn't Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970 and Really the Blues? A Horizontal Chronicle of the Vertical Blues, 1893-1959 -- and a sprawling, crowd-funded 4CD album, Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4. They're a mixed bag, in more ways than one.

As a writer, Lowe represents a countervailing force to the prevailing, Ken Burns-annointed jazz orthodoxy exemplified by Albert Murray, Stanley Crouch, and Wynton Marsalis. In fact, Really the Blues? proceeds from an encounter with Marsalis, in which the trumpeter and owner of the Lincoln Center jazz franchise accuses Lowe of being "an academic," based on the author's defense of minstrelsy against charges of "racial degradation." (Tell it to Nick Tosches.) Myself, I think Lowe doth protest too much being tarred with that brush -- after all, who but an academic would write, as Lowe does in God Didn't Like It, that "Many in the field who write about [popular] music have little technical knowledge, a handicap which is not necessarily insurmountable?" But by Lowe's own account, it's the spleen generated by Marsalis' dismissal that fueled his fire for these projects.

His idiosyncratic concept of "vertical" vs. "horizontal" in the blues book is based on harmonic motion (unsurprising for a jazz player), but his vision of "the blues" is expansive enough to include Harry Partch and Charles Ives, and his gift for succinctly encapsulating the essence of an artist or a performance -- a strength of his earlier books -- is also in evidence here. I find the rock book more problematic. In it, Lowe abandons his usual chronological approach in favor of a rambling discourse that appears to be largely based on 40-year-old knowledge and a recent trawl through the Norton Records catalog.

He's generally strong on pre-rock styles up to Presley (although he reveals a certain antipathy to white Southerners -- surprising in light of his advocacy for white musicians). Besides clear favorites of his like Frank Zappa and Mike Bloomfield, his take on '60s rock is condescending, informed by the prejudices one would expect from an observer who abandoned rock for jazz in the early '70s. More disturbing is the abundance of the kind of errors, typographical and even factual, that a good proofreader and editor would have caught. God Didn't Like It made me want to reach for Nik Cohn or Joe Carducci in the same way that the first volume of Stanley Crouch's Charlie Parker biography made me want to reach for Ralph Ellison.

Much more to the point is Mulatto Radio, which is nothing less than one man's attempt to reimagine the whole history of jazz (and every other music he's ever heard). It's an exhaustive and exhausting collection of pieces intended to evoke different facets of the jazz past, embellished by the musicians based on what they bring to the party. Over the course its four discs (and he says he has another three in the can), Lowe creates a Burroughsian cutup of the jazz tradition, juxtaposing century-old two-beat rhythms with whirlwind, post-bop solos, or playing modern, Monkian melodies with Creole band instrumentation, including the best use of the banjo on a modern jazz record since Vernon Reid picked one up in Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society (and Ray Suhy's playing bebop on the axe).

There's lots of great playing here from a large cast; particular standouts include Suhy (a guitarist to be reckoned with, who demonstrates that monster chops and gut-level expression are not mutually exclusive), protean pianist Lewis Porter (who performs solo as well as in ensembles), titanic AACM tenorman Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre (who appears on a half dozen tracks -- his last recorded performances), clarinetist Ken Peplowski, tubist Christopher Meeder, and the leader himself, whose encyclopedic knowledge of jazz style comes to the fore and whose vocalized, bop-inflected tone hardly sounds like the work of an academic. It's really a composer's record (imagine if Duke Ellington was Jewish, trapped in a New England backwater, and unable to play except in the recording studio), and while Lowe provides copious notes explicating each piece, the music stands on its own merit, rewarding in-depth exploration.

Mulatto Radio will be available from Lowe's website early next year. Both books are available now by emailing him at


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